Thursday, May 19, 2011

A step by step guide to a decluttered digital life

Modern technology and minimalism

Minimalism applied to your computer, that's what this is all about. These days, a big part of our lives can be digitized.

Minimalists have succesfully used modern technology to put all there information, important papers, old fotos, etc. in some digital format on computers and harddisks.This is a good idea, because a file on a harddisk and a fotogragh are both 1 physical object. But 1000 fotographs on a harddisks is still 1 object, the harddisk, whereas 1000 real fotographs are actually 1000 objects.

But there's a danger in there too... without careful planning, it's possible to move your clutter to your computer. That way, you have a minimalist home, free from clutter. But once you turn on your computer, the misery starts again: looking through heaps of directories just to find that one file, having a slow computer because there's a lot of files and directories and subdirectories...

A guide to a minimalist computer

There a lot to say about this subject, but it can roughly be categorized in 3 main parts:

1. Organizing your filesystem in a clean, elegant and practical way.

2. Using only the applications you need and use.

3. Using applications that have a minimal design and do what they need to do and nothing more.

Below is a step by step guide to organize and improve your digital life.

Step 1:
Remove all temporary files, old backups (that are no longer needed or way to old), files you accidently created, etc.

Step 2:
Make an inventory of all your files and write it in a text file or on a piece of paper.

Step 3:
Think about how you want to organize everything. This step is the longest and hardest part. Think long and hard about this, it will make your life easier.

Step 4:
Stop using too many subfolders and names that are too obscure or too long. It's been said that using no more than 3 sublevels in your folder hierarchy in combination with foldernames that are maximum 8 characters long, will provide the best structure that you can easily remember.

I've tried this myself and the results are amazing. It's now a lot easier for me to find a specific file or folder. Even on the computer, the saying "a place for everything and everything in its place" is a valid one. If you know the purpose of each folder, you don't have to think long about where to find, download or save a file. That's 3 times less thinking!

Step 5:
Move everything to the correct folders, only keep what you need and stick to it. Take te time to review everything once in a while. Clutter will creep into your digital life easier than in real life, so you need to keep decluttering you harddrives too.

Step 6:
Once you have a simple folder hierarchy, it's time to review your applications. What do you use often? What don't you use at all? If you ever installed applications to try something out, they might still be there. Do you still have games installed that you don't play anymore? Remove everything you don't use.

Step 7:
Make sure you use simple and minimalistic versions of your applications. Sometimes (and especially in Windows-land), applications can become too bloated with features you don't even need. If you have a clock application that can display the date and time, but that can also check your e-mail for new mail, than it's not a good clock application. A clock should be a clock. Date and time. Period.
I try to use as much applications as possible, that adhere to the unix philosophy. This means that they are applications that do only one thing, but do it well. An example is the unix 'date' command. It can show you date and time, in all available formats. Thats it. Nothing more. Date and time. Period.

So try looking for alternatives if you feel that your current application is too slow, has too many features or when you find one that does the same thing in a faster and/or better manner.

Step 8:
This step is closely related to step 7. If you use a lot of minimalist software, there might be a way to make it even more simple. Try to see if one application can replace the functionality of the other. Try combining functionality in 1 application.

A small example that I implemented: I used a calculator on the linux command line called 'bc'. But I'm also a python programmer, so I have python installed. Now it so happens to be that python can do everything regarding calculations. So I removed bc and whenever I need to make a calculation, I start the python interpreter and do my calculations there.
This has 2 advantages: I use python more, so I learn faster and that's one less application that takes up disk space.

Step 9:
Your desktop is NOT a folder/trash can/work area. I often see computers that have a desktop full of icons and files and shortcuts... Why put it there and not in a folder? If you want a temporary storage place like that, create a dedicated folder for that. Call it something simple and clear (see step 4) and make it easily accessible (see step 3 and 4).

Step 10:
A good colorscheme and a nice wallpaper make all the difference. If your wallpaper has a picture of a junkyard, it will give you a feeling of clutter. If your wallpaper is dark, it will make the room you work in, seem smaller. I often use light wallpapers, preferably even photographs of landscapes and nature.

Colorschemes of applications should be minimalistic. Photographs incorporated into the menu's of your application will make your computer look like a mess. It will annoy you after a while. Try to give everything an elegant, clean and uniform look.

Step 10 is all about personal perference and it might take a lot of experimenting to find the right combination, but it makes your computering a more pleasant experience, if done right.


Minimalism can be applied everywhere, in every aspect of your life. But regardless the fact that you're a minimalist or not, using this guide to organize your digital life, will make the time you spend behind the computer an experience that's more valueable and pleasant then ever before.